St Pancras station’s new Wi-Fi network installation can support 8,000 connections

Smarter Wi-Fi networks watch as you roam

Image credit: Alamy, Image source

New smarter Wi-Fi systems can give owners better returns on their investments by offering enhanced features to users and providing valuable information to operators.

To suggest that the Wi-Fi ‘hotspot’ is becoming extinct sounds wacky given that most metropolitan areas are saturated with public wireless internet access options, but because of that aggregated coverage, just about every downtown spot is now connectedly ‘hot’ – and getting hotter.

According to Cisco, the number of public Wi-Fi local-area networks (LANs) around the world will hit 432 million by 2020. Much of this proliferation is due to free public offerings – branded Wi-Fi signals jostle to connect with our electronic devices as we walk the high street. This trend is driven as much by marketing as technology: Wi-Fi is seen as a customer enticement and brand extender.

New variants of the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard have come to market designed to add greater value to the basic premise of wireless internet access. As legacy Wi-Fi networks are upgraded and new ones set up, they are adopting the higher-quality ‘flavours’, such as 802.11ac and 802.11n.

Yet better Wi-Fi still incurs extra cost for its providers, and so must be capable of delivering more than just improved internet access to achieve a return on investment. For this reason, system owners and their technology providers are exploring ways to add value to Wi-Fi’s role and capabilities.

University of Cambridge

These capabilities can bring benefits for both commercial and non-commercial deployments. The University of Cambridge has (since 2014) been implementing an extensive 802.11 ac/n Wi-Fi network, called the University Wireless Service, that stretches from the Biomedical Campus in the south of the city to the Science Park development in the north-west. In addition to being the primary broadband access method for the university’s students, academics and other staff, it is used to gain insights about academic visitors.

“At University of Cambridge, the city is the campus,” says Jon Holgate, head of network division at University Information Services (UIS), which operates University Wireless Service. “We need to cover outdoor spaces, [and] lecture halls that go from empty to 300 people in minutes.”

Until 2012, each Cambridge college had its own wireless connectivity strategy, which resulted in a disjointed experience, Holgate recalls. The plan was to build a unified network run by UIP partnering with Aruba Networks that could provide virtual LANs for individual learning centres, along with subnets and other value-added features. The university now has more than 4,500 Wi-Fi access points (APs) throughout the city, all managed from its Aruba AirWave platform, and the figure may eventually rise to 7,000.

To date, all the 150+ university departments, and 21 of its 31 colleges, have bought into UIS wireless services, and about 20 departments and colleges have requested additional SSIDs (service set identifiers: effectively network ‘names’). Holgate says: “The advantage of a local bridged SSID is the ability to have a locally authenticated account, and then allow access to local storage, printing, etc.  Additionally, some science takes place over these additional SSIDs. The Department of Engineering runs a local SSID solely for robotics trials.”

An added challenge is that more sent data is shifting from the wired network to wireless. “In 2012 just over 2 per cent of [the university’s] internet traffic was wireless. In the last academic year [2016-2017], it was just under 25 per cent,” Holgate reports. “Considering the university transfers around 40Pb of traffic per annum, including astronomy and physics data sets, which tend to be large, 25 per cent of internet data [going] over Wi-Fi is a huge figure.”

In 2016, 30,000 visitors accessed University of Cambridge Wi-Fi. Visitor typing is achieved primarily by authentication profiling via branded roaming services that let devices log-in automatically to registered services.

All authentication types have grown, reports Holgate, but most noticeable is the number of Eduroam users. These are visiting academic staff or students using their own devices who have Eduroam configured at their ‘home’ institution.

Providing an international roaming service for users in academic research, higher and further education, Eduroam gives managed network access to researchers, teachers and students when they are visiting other institutions.

“Eduroam allows radius-based 802.1x authentication, so the visitors connect automatically [within range]. We see over 30,000 unique visitors to Cambridge each month. This reflects the level of international engagement Cambridge has with other institutions,” says Holgate.

“We have taken these authentications and plotted them to visualise where visitors are visiting from. This data plays into the university’s agenda of being internationally engaging, and the role of the wireless solution is to enable collaboration to work seamlessly. These figures tell me we’re making it easier for visitors to connect and collaborate. That benefits our reputation.”

St Pancras International station

Eurostar hub and terminus for national and London suburban rail services, St Pancras International also houses more retail outlets than any other UK railway station. With a weekly footfall of up to one million (mostly connected) people – including many non-travellers – the need for a major upgrade to its existing Wi-Fi infrastructure was evident as its legacy network struggled to meet demand, particularly between 5pm and 8pm, when up to 5,000 devices used to try to connect to the station’s public Wi-Fi designed to handle 200 connections.

Earlier this year WIFI Metropolis completed a Wi-Fi network upgrade throughout St Pancras International, which provided a service based on solutions from Xirrus (now part of Riverbed Technology). The network is 802.11 n/ac operating at both 2.4GHz (n) and 5.0GHz (ac/n).

“St. Pancras is a unique venue,” says Gregory E Smith, CEO at WIFI Metropolis. “The challenge is that the density of use is dynamic, by both location and time of day, because it is driven by train schedules and external events such as weather, service delays, etc. The previous Wi-Fi network could handle 200 concurrent connections, but the Xirrus installation can support 8,000.” That is not an absolute figure, Smith explains, but the maximum number of users at what WIFI Metropolis considers the minimum acceptable level of performance – around 5Mbit/s: “The theoretical maximum based on the hardware installed and the network configuration is 20,000... The highest utilisation level so far recorded – during a major service disruption – was 6,329 simultaneous users.” The average St Pancras International Wi-Fi user is connected for 20 minutes and consumes 63MB of data, Smith adds.

The Wi-Fi network is key to measuring people flows within the station, and to meeting the needs of its retail tenants. It provides an option for tenants to have a Wi-Fi subnet to run their own local branded public access service (they are barred from operating their own public Wi-Fi systems in order to keep the signal environment clean), and can provide insight into how their business might be affected by footfall dynamics. The former means retailers don’t have to be distracted by their Wi-Fi going down, because it is part of a centralised, managed service. The latter is a factor in attracting new tenants, says Smith, because it is more accurate than other methods of ‘people counting’.

Equally important is the Wi-Fi’s ability to track when people are not on the move, and determining where and why they linger.

“People intentionally come early to access the Wi-Fi before travel because it is known to be high quality. This increased ‘dwell time’ directly impacts total station revenues generated by [retail] tenants.”

A key factor in  Wi-Fi usage patterns that the technology has revealed is the available seating or ‘comfortable’ standing area, versus the total flow of users. The connect time falls sharply, Smith says, if crowds mean that there are no seating or standing places to be had. Also, Wi-Fi quality must be high if people are not going to spend time fiddling with their smartphones and laptops trying to connect when they might otherwise be taking advantage of the station’s retail amenities.

Bournemouth International Centre

When conference, events and entertainment venue Bournemouth International Centre (BIC) first opened its doors in 1984, the public internet was a decade away, and wireless communications on the mass scale the venue’s visitors now take for granted were science fantasy. The multi-purpose venue features four main auditoria, and has the largest licensed visitor capacity – 10,000 – of any venue on Britain’s south coast.

BIC has just undergone a major connectivity upgrade to both its wired and wireless communications infrastructure. The venue contracted WiFi SPARK to design, install and deploy the new networks with total Wi-Fi (and wired) coverage throughout its 6,982 square metres of enclosed space.

With users as diverse as Olly Murs fans and party conference delegates, BIC’s Wi-Fi network operations must meet the expectations of basic usage, but also enable value-added revenue opportunities in its own right. Bold would be the event venue that attempted to charge visitors for basic Wi-Fi access, but smart Wi-Fi now enables venues to recover some of that cost with value-added services based on Wi-Fi innovations.

This means that while BIC clients such as exhibitors, concert organisers and broadcasters can use the free visitor wireless broadband access, if they require a dedicated connection there’s a charge. For this the SSID name is branded as the exhibitor, and the bandwidth is higher, to allow for more feature-rich connectivity.

Additional SSIDs for ticket scanners, point-of-sale systems and venue clients can be provisioned. Depending on the requirements of an event, different SSIDs are also available in different parts of the venue. Data collected from a User Experience Portal is fed into WiFi SPARK’s analytics platform so that the venue team can view graphs of anonymised network and device usage, such as new and returning visitors, plus additional insights to help them build and enhance their business intelligence.

“[This] information can be used to identify customer spikes,” says Cee Chan, IT manager at BH Live, BIC’s operator. “This can help maximise on venue peaks and troughs, which in turn helps [planning] for future events.”

Kew Gardens

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBGK) is both a leading scientific organisation and a top visitor attraction. Its 132 hectares of gardens attract 1.5 million people per year. Like other attractions, as visitor and staff Wi-Fi expectations have escalated, RBGK has come under an increasing obligation to provide high-grade Wi-Fi for both groups.

“Before, Wi-Fi connectivity was sporadic, with APs from legacy providers failing to sync up,” recalls Matthew Mills, head of IT & information security at RBGK. “It placed responsibility on [staff and visitors] to flag connectivity issues.”

For this reason, a core requirement of the new Wi-Fi solution was to ensure the network could provide insight on user activity, which could also help show Kew where support and additional services could be implemented.

RBGK also needed Wi-Fi to cover a much broader area, starting at the entry gates and extending to business hubs within the park. To this end, RBGK’s IT team worked with Aerohive Networks to upgrade its Wi-Fi architecture. First, 130 Aerohive APs (2.5GHz and 5GHz) were placed in business offices across the park and in cafes, restaurants and the gates – identified as the locations where visitors are most likely to want to connect.

As part of the initial deployment, two sub-nets were created for the Gardens: one for visitors and guests, the other for business operation purposes and staff. In doing this, system administrators can ensure usage of each network is closely managed, and patterns of visitor use can be distinguished and catered for. “The new connected environment means that some 28,000 devices can be connected to, and supported by, the network simultaneously,” Mills reports.

A range of devices can now be run across the two networks, including staff barcode scanners. The increased coverage has allowed RBGK to incorporate iBeacons (low-energy Bluetooth devices that broadcast their identifier to nearby devices) across the gardens, sharing additional information on visitor locations with administrators who instruct managers to assign support staff in busy areas, say. The Wi-Fi network can track connected devices and give RBGK managers insight into the most popular locations and routes that visitors take, so they can plan for a better visitor experience.

When visitors photograph a plant or other garden feature, they are not content just to have it stored for later viewing; they want to share their experience instantly, which calls for an ‘always around, always on’ Wi-Fi regimen. This has led to a fall in complaints from staff and visitors, and helps RBGK’s connectivity rating on social media and tourism sites.

The upgraded Wi-Fi also pays its way by supporting opportunities for RBGK to be used for additional commercial activities, such as conferences and weddings. 

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